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The Internal Combustion Engine Gets Modern



Nissan GT-R Nismo engine

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Yes, its old and it pollutes but the gasoline-fueled, internal-combustion engine is a workhorse that has remained the go-to for most automakers and consumers.

The tried and tested technology has had many competitors over the decades, namely steam and electric engines, but it has outlasted them all, maintaining its leadership position as the main propulsion system since the early 1900s.

Amazingly, almost 100 years later, it’s still ubiquitous and continues to see improvements. Here are five of the latest innovations that will help keep the internal combustion engine around for years to come:

1. Camshaft-Less Engines

Internal combustion engines work by mixing air and fuel in combustion chambers and then igniting it to drive pistons that spin a crankshaft. Orchestrating this is a set of camshafts that open and close the cylinder valves in the combustion chambers.

The method is far from perfect but it’s worked for a long time. Unfortunately, the optimal timing of the opening and closing of intake and exhaust valves depends on engine speed and is something that can’t be controlled by standard camshafts. A solution is to have each valve managed by its own actuator, perfectly timed for what is happening with the cylinders and crankshaft position.

The move towards 48-volt electrical systems will allow engineers to design cam-less engines that will offer far more efficiency than the old cam designs.

2. 48-Volt Electrical Systems

Engineers are betting on the 48-volt electrical system as one of the key technologies that will help boost the efficiency of internal combustion engines.

Most engines today rely on a belt to drive engine accessories, but these belts generally run continuously, wasting power as a result. This is a problem that can be addressed by 48-volt generators — the power output enabled by such a device will allow these accessory drives to go electric, potentially boosting fuel efficiency by around 10 percent.

According to Northwest Chrysler of Houston, a local Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Fiat dealer in Houston, TX, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne says his company is currently working on 48 volt systems, though he hasn’t revealed when they will be ready for prime time.

3. Electric Superchargers

The turbocharger is another classic piece of engine technology that has received a new lease on life in recent years, but it’s appeal is still undermined by the problem of “turbo-lag.”

Turbo lag is the delay that occurs between mashing the throttle and feeling the rush of torque from a turbo-equipped engines. A solution is to drive the turbine using a powerful electric motor instead of exhaust gases, delivering a response that’s almost instantaneous and can be adjusted according to the engine conditions.

4. Cylinder Deactivation

Cylinder Deactivation — a system that could switch off two or four engine cylinders depending on the load — is not a new concept. Cadillac, for one, experimented with the technology in the early 1980s but it was poorly executed and didn’t deliver the desired results.

Today, thanks largely to advancements in electronics and sensors, cylinder deactivation is a serious piece of innovation that works well enough to improve the efficiency of just about any engine that utilizes it. GM says the technology can cut fuel consumption by as much as 15 percent in vehicles.

5. Variable Compression Pistons

A higher compression ratio helps when you need maximum torque to get up to speed. Unfortunately, this same high compression reduces efficiency when torque isn’t needed. At least that’s how things were not too long ago…

Today, modern electronic systems can change the compression ratio of an engine’s cylinders when in operation by varying the valve timing, a feat that engineers say can improve efficiency some 12 percent.

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